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Why Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’ Can’t Be Another Sugar-Coated Fan Film

By Courtesy of RCA Records
By Avery Britt, Contributing Writer

It was only a few months ago that droves stampeded movie theaters to see the gaudy, campy ode to The King of Rock and Roll that was Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” Entranced by Vegas marquees, mumble rock music, and Austin Butler’s Mississippi-Memphis accent, people young and old glimpsed the Elvis-manic culture that defined the mid-century. But the Elvis that Luhrmann introduced to the world appears much like the rocker’s candy-red bedroom: Too rosy to be true. Luhrmann brought the most positive version of Elvis back into cultural consciousness. For months last summer, he trapped viewers in a saccharine shrine to The King, made even sweeter by the almost perfect portrayal that Butler delivered. And now, Sofia Coppola wants to take those same movie-goers back to cotton candy land — maybe.

With a soft, dreamy palette and brooding teenage aesthetic in hand, Sofia Coppola (who is the daughter of Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola) brazenly redefined the indie film scene in the late 1990s and early ’00s with classics like “The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette,” and perhaps most famously, “Lost in Translation.” Now, the woman who has become one of the most quintessential female filmmakers of the last thirty years for her dreamlike realism wants to tell the story of an icon clad in sequins and jet black hair, someone whose life almost transcends the bounds of reality: Priscilla Presley.

Even though the headlines for Coppola’s upcoming film seem to only feature casting news about Jacob Elordi as Elvis, the new picture does not actually center around the rock icon. Instead, Coppola focuses on his wife, Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s, story, outlined in her 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me.” To profile Priscilla Presley seems like an obvious choice, not only given the current Elvis obsession but also because the stories of women like Priscilla are gaining more attention and validity.

Coppola’s announcement comes in the wake of a massive movement to re-empower a more traditional brand of femininity. Cultural feminism is again opening its arms to the women and femme people who identify with conventional versions of womanhood. The housewife and the girly-girl clad in pink are starting to receive the same respect as the woman on Madison Avenue in the power suit. While this long-awaited movement is overwhelmingly positive, it has allowed a few problematic narratives to again take a foothold in pop culture.

As people confidently display gifts from sugar daddies on TikTok or laugh at Leonardo DiCaprio’s revolving door of women below 25, the narrative of an older man dating a younger woman transforms into something not only extremely visible but legitimate. However, while a relationship with a large age gap is acceptable among consenting adults, many children have begun to fetishize this enchanting type of romance and the people, like Priscilla Presley, who exist in it.

Young people have pinned Priscilla Presley as their icon of glamorous femininity. Rates of Pinterest boards enshrining just her hair and fan edits of her honeymoon set to Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” have skyrocketed, especially after “Elvis” brought her back into the public eye. She remains one of the few people still praised almost solely for an image related to her late husband. Despite creating a successful line of clothing and skincare products and her award-winning stint on one of the most popular shows of all time, “Dallas,” Presley pushes these personal accomplishments to the back burner in favor of devoting herself to Elvis, even decades after they divorced. People still think of her as the girl with the big hair in the pink suit hopelessly in love with her rockstar because she wants them to. There’s nothing wrong with supporting individuals who dedicate their lives to bolstering the success of those they love, but when Priscilla’s image is praised, specifically, it underpins a culture of manipulation and abuse.

According to “Elvis and Me,” Elvis groomed and dated Priscilla Beaulieu from the time she was fourteen. Ten years her senior and immeasurably more influential, The King slowly turned this teenager into the image of himself, fixing her hair and clothes to embody his perfect woman — a woman that happened to look just like him. [And when she expressed a dissenting opinion, he released an anger “like the roar of thunder,” which Priscilla describes, “Sometimes he lashed out just to drive home a point … Then, ten minutes later, he’d be fine, leaving us bewildered and emotionally depleted … He was truly a master at manipulating people.”

Beneath the tortured soul in the suave leather jacket image was a man who created a doll from a human being and a girl denied her girlhood because of abuse and manipulation. However, when Priscilla tells her story, only sweetness oozes out.

Although there are brief flashes indicating Elvis’s emotional abuse, “Elvis and Me” mostly reads like the diary of a woman still afflicted with Stockholm syndrome, even years after her captor’s death. Priscilla praises her net gain of only 4 pounds during pregnancy as a triumph of her womanly beauty because she maintained Elvis’s affection. She lambasts women like “broad-shouldered” Ursula Andress (an actual Bond girl, considered one of the most beautiful women of her time) because of a romantic rivalry. Her memoir is peppered with the insecurity of a young girl commodified and praised for her physical beauty — a real-life tragedy that has been fetishized by the new, young Elvis fandom because of the king-like aura that was reinforced in “Elvis.”

None of this reality, from the grooming to the manipulation, featured in the Luhrmann film. In fact, Priscilla, despite making up almost 50 percent of Elvis’s life, had less than 15 minutes of screen time in the 159-minute movie. In Baz Luhrmann’s defense, it’s not inherently wrong to omit the more controversial sides of a person’s life story in order to give the public a “fan film.” However, if creators hide the controversial sides of a figure in a piece of media, the truth must be just as public as the fiction in one way or another. The population does not deserve to be manipulated by a solely rosy narrative.

Sofia Coppola has perhaps taken it upon herself to tell the truth, giving a voice to Priscilla that cheers for Elvis only silenced. However, if Coppola (already known for romanticizing female suffering) chooses to follow Priscilla’s sugar-coated tone to the letter, the movie might end up as yet another sickly sweet ode, and too much sweetness can poison a pot.

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